Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore wants to get under your skin.
He’s an agitator, a button-pusher, he says.
At the microphone, the poet rattles off line after line of staccato verse he designs to make listeners think and feel and understand others.
“I like to cross lines that I’m not supposed to cross,” said Skidmore, the executive director of Forward Arts Inc, a nonprofit organization that connects students with the arts. “Most people know me as someone who likes to experiment and take risks.”
Earlier this month, Skidmore placed first in the Individual World Poetry Slam in Spokane, Wash., a competition that pits spoken word poets head-to-head reciting their work on stage.
In his theatrical, aggressive style, Skidmore recites poetry filled with concerns that crowd his mind. As an African-American atheist man living in the South, issues of racism and religious discrimination regularly work their way into his poems.
“You push back the hardest against the thing you are bombarded by the most,” Skidmore said.
His piece “Blood Curdling (The Black Man’s New Survival Tactic)” focuses on society’s perception of black men. He starts his performance, captured on video from a poetry slam in Tulsa, Okla., with a shrill scream.
“I guess I got to put this brown voice into Amber Alert until it’s an emergency for black folks to go missing,” he says.
“I guess I’ve got to scream bloody murder to get some respect around here.”
These dramatic readings place him in spoken word poetry’s avant-garde, said Donney Rose, a spoken word poet who teaches poetry with Skidmore.
“His style is definitely a push toward originality with a layer of controversy,” said Rose, 33. “Xero writes poems that spark conversations that people have to leave and talk about and think about.”
Raised in Plaquemine, Skidmore wrote his first poem for an elementary school teacher’s birthday card. He wrote for school and always received compliments, which, he said, led him to continue writing.
Music led him to his current style of poetry. He played trombone and loved hip-hop music, leading him to major in music at Southern University.
When his daughter was born 21 years ago, he dropped out of college and started working in the warehouse of a paper distributor.
During a poetry slam in Baton Rouge, Skidmore recited one of his raps a cappella and received applause.
“While you’re on the microphone for those two, two and a half minutes, you’re the only voice in the room that matters,” he said. “Everybody’s going to shut the hell up and listen and, regardless of whether or not they agree with it, they’re going to applaud when you’re done.”
He wrote raps and poems on Xerox paper he took from work and folded into neat squares and placed in his pocket. Dropping the final “x” off Xerox led to his stage name, which is loaded with meaning.
“When everybody was adopting these really kind of self-aggrandizing stage personas and stage names, I was trying to disappear behind my words,” he said, “which is where the name Xero kind of came from.”
Continuing to write poetry, he began competing at poetry slams across the country in 2000.
In 2005, Skidmore started teaching poetry workshops in schools and in after school sessions through the Big Buddy Program’s Word Play project. He teaches students to craft poems and improve their writing and communication.
“He’s a pusher,” Rose said. “He pushes himself to be great and therefore everyone around him, whether he’s talking about me or the kids, anyone who does spoken word, he pushes them.”
Along with Rose, Skidmore separated from Big Buddy and founded Forward Arts Inc. in 2012 to bring poetry and other forms of art into more students’ lives.
“I’m not trying to create an army of poets,” Skidmore said. “I’m trying to create an army of effective communicators and they can take that life skill into whatever career they choose to.”
By encouraging students to pursue art, Skidmore said he hopes to improve all areas of their future work lives.
“To be able to think creatively, why would that not serve a doctor or a lawyer well?” he said. “If they can get that from having an artist enter their classroom, I don’t see anything but good in that.”